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Federer now just one of the outsiders

5/20/2011 - Tennis Roger Federer

Say, didn't there used to be a Roger Federer? The guy who would win everything or, as French Open spectators better knew him, the guy who would lose in the final to Rafael Nadal. Where'd he go?

Nowhere, really. But that's the problem. Federer has hardly played badly this season, reaching four semifinals and one final and losing only two matches to players not named Nadal or Novak Djokovic. But unlike Nadal last year and Djokovic this year, he has not made significant improvements either, standing still while his two younger rivals have moved to center stage. In the past two months, the Nadal-Djokovic battle has taken over the game, and Federer -- along with everyone else -- has become an afterthought in the French Open conversation.

Can he be completely counted out? Not surprisingly, Federer would be the first to say no. "Now Rafa and Novak are going to be big favorites for the French Open, myself as well, Robin Soderling -- you can't count him out after back-to-back finals the last couple of years," Federer said in a television interview in Rome last week. "Then you'll always have other tough guys like David Ferrer, other Spaniards, who you can never count out. But I think it's shaping up to look that way, and whoever makes a run here (Andy Murray and Richard Gasquet?), you can also put them in as a dark horse.

"I think I've played well enough over the last nine months and also the last couple of weeks to show I can do it at the French Open. I've won that tournament already, which is a huge benefit I think in terms of experience and so forth. And physically and mentally I'm really happy with where I'm at."

The difference is that the once-dominant Swiss is no longer automatically a favorite. Federer has put in the work over the past year to meet the challenges posed by Nadal and Djokovic, hiring Paul Annacone last summer and working on subtle changes that create more opportunities for attack. But despite a good run indoors last fall, he has not returned to the point when his everyday level is enough to sweep him into the final round at most events. Now, he is in the same position most top players are in for most of their careers -- he needs both good play and a bit of good luck to win. Welcome back to earth, Mr. Federer.

This is magnified at the French Open, the Grand Slam that has always been his biggest challenge -- in contrast to his multiple wins at all the other majors, he has won this one only once, in 2009. As the gap with the rest of the field closes, Federer is becoming increasingly conscious about court conditions, feeling at a disadvantage when the surface or weather slows play. And while he continues to remain remarkably injury-free, the 29-year-old is more prone to aches and pains over the course of an event, such as the arm pain he felt during Madrid. There are growing calls for him to explore new technology -- he last changed frames in 2002 -- but for now, he remains convinced that his current equipment is best.

But at the same time, big events remain within his grasp. No one can match his experience and very few possess his knowledge of the game and its players. His fitness and movement are still exceptional, and he can recover better at Grand Slams because of the day off between matches. And while there are a few more mental lapses now -- remember all those losses from match point up last year? -- he is still a dogged competitor.

A few recent matches have revealed Federer's state of flux. Against hometown darling Feliciano Lopez in Madrid, Federer fell behind 5-2 in a final-set tiebreaker. But when the talented but unreliable Spaniard missed an overhead on the next point, Federer pounced. He took a set off Nadal in the semifinals, but struggled when Nadal picked up his play. In Rome, Federer outcompeted Jo-Wilfried Tsonga easily in his opening round but fell a bit short in the quarterfinals when Tsonga's compatriot, Richard Gasquet, refused to fold as expected. One-time Federer coach Jose Higueras once remarked that his former pupil's big strength was his ability to remain calm and confident at big moments. A few losses could shake that inner cool, Higueras remarked, but an inspiring victory could bring it back quickly.

So if he cannot be counted out, where does Federer actually stand going into the second major of the season? Ahead of most of the field, and even or a little ahead of other second-string contenders like Ferrer, Soderling, Murray & Co. But at the same time, a definite underdog against the likes of Nadal and Djokovic.

The one advantage he does have is that he will be a little fresher than either of those two. It makes him a little more upbeat about his prospects. "I'll definitely be happy to take two, three, four days off, whatever it takes to feel completely mentally and physically fresh for the French Open," Federer said after his Rome loss to Gasquet. "I've got plenty of time now, and I'll practice very hard once I get to Paris, and that's the plan. It's been the same the last few years, and this time around, I've got a few more days off, which is maybe not a bad thing."

On Tuesday, he was practicing on Court Philippe Chartrier against another wayward French talent, Gael Monfils. A 16-time Grand Slam champion, but for now, just one of the many outsiders trying to get a look in at this year's French Open.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.